STRIPES: CHAPTER FOUR
by K. Trotta


A week passed. Tifa scraped the last bits of gil she had and slipped out to a clothing store. She'd found an old black cloak she found lying in Stripes' closet. She bought some decent new clothes: a few t-shirts and a couple pairs of jeans, and other less public, yet neccesary articles.

Stripes asked her if she was ready every day that week, but she kept declining. Every evening, Reno and Rude stopped by, and every evening, Stripes found it harder and harder to lie to his friends.

One time she happened to peek down at the wrong moment and saw Rude staring straight at her. She froze like a deer. But he turned to the side and said nothing.

Customers weren't a problem. Tifa put her hair in a high ponytail and a faceless mask Stripes had pulled out of one of the storage bins whenever somebody came in for a tattoo.

Tifa was mezmerized by Stripes' artistic talent. On Wednesday, somebody came in and demanded Stripes to cover his entire back with little dragons. It took him the rest of the day, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to finish it. Tifa leaned up against the wall as he did his work. Stripes totally engrossed himself in what he did. He didn't eat or sleep until his customer was finished. The entire thing cost about 35000 gil, which the satisfied customer gladly paid.

Once he was finished, Tifa went to take a look at Stripes' guestbook. He was up to 19 now.

Ed the Bartender was 15.

Tifa herself was 16. It seemed odd that he didn't disregard her name and just make the next person 16. He knew she didn't want a tattoo.

A fat old man who wanted a picture of former ShinRa Weapons Manager Scarlet on his arm was 17. Tifa had only watched a little while for that one; she had never been quite fond of Scarlet or fat old men. The man brought in a reference picture, but Stripes rendered Scarlet as if he had known her personally.

A rich little boy who dragged his parents to the place was 18. He screamed and kicked until he got his little picture of his favorite PocketDemon on his shoulder. Stripes gave the parents a receipt and a free waiver for a skilled laser surgeon for when the child wanted it removed, which Stripes figured would be in about a month.

When he wasn't sterilizing his supplies, Stripes was usually to be found staring out the window of his room.
There was absolutely nothing to see outside there, just another grey building. The city workers were putting up a bilboard in the middle of it. Tifa guessed that that was what he was always watching...but after a more thorough investigation, Tifa noticed that he only stared at it when it wasn't being worked on.

Stripes kept a pack of cigarettes on his nightstand, but he never smoked them. It was as if they were just there for show. After a while, Stripes sensed Tifa catching onto him and tried smoking one the next time he sensed her watching him at the window. It wasn't the most successful attempt. As soon as he lit the thing, he started coughing. It wasn't a smoker's cough, obviously.

Tifa rushed into the room to see what was the matter. "Hey...Stripes, you okay?"

It took Stripes a moment to stop coughing. Tifa could see his eyes watering through his ever-present sunglasses. He nodded painfully.

Tifa picked up the pack of AVALANCHE brand cigarettes and scrunched them in her hand. "If they make you cough like that, don't smoke them, Stripes!"



"I figured that..." he stopped to cough, "I figured that if I started smoking myself, I'd fit in a little more with this crowd," he coughed again, "Ohh..." he sighed, painfully.

"This crowd? What? The Turks at Ed's? Don't be ridiculous."



"I can if I want."



"But you don't want to."



Stripes looked at the ground and put the cigarette out in the palm of his hand. For a moment, Tifa thought she smelled fromaldahyde. He handed the bent piece of tobbacco, paper and foam to Tifa with a blank expression on his face. "You have a point there, Miss Strife."



Tifa looked at the wretched sticklike man for a moment and closed her eyes. "...Lockheart."



"Pardon?"



"Tifa Lockheart."



"Oh, so I suppose you're going through with that divorce thing, after all?"



Tifa nodded.



"You seem ready to face him."



Tifa shook her head vigorously. "No...no, I'm not ready yet. Don't make me go yet, Stripes!"



"You act as if I'm just going to push you out into the street when you're ready. Have some sense, woman. I was actually planning to accompany you."



Tifa was a little stunned. "Why?!"



"I want to apologize for hindering the Turks' search."



"You don't have to do that Stripes...I--"



"Plus I think I should be there to support you if you can't round up enough of your friends."



Tifa looked up into Stripes' stern face. He had his mind set on it. She probably wouldn't be able to stop him if she wanted to.



Stripes turned back to his billboard.

***

President Strife paced about in his office. He hadn't had a decent night's sleep since Tifa left. She had made such a nice pillow and after five years of marriage, Cloud was used to cuddling up with her, no matter how bad they had fought the day before. He used to be able to keep her under control. He wondered what he had done wrong?

There was no way he could have upset Tifa that much by drawing a little picture of them...honestly, now...Cloud knew he couldn't draw, but a stick figure couldn't offend a person that much, now could it?

He was so confused. He hadn't changed his clothes since she left, either. He reeked like a drowned rat in a butcher shop whose meat freezers had lost power three weeks ago.

The Turks had better find her.

He pressed the button on his intercom. "YUFFIE!"

"Yes, sir?" the scared voice of Yuffie the Secretary came from the intercom.

"I think Reeve has an appointment with me. Send him in."

"Y-yes sir..."

Yuffie's timid voice faded and Reeve's timid form was shoved into Cloud's office. "M-mm-mister President, sir?"

"Yes, Reeve, what is it?"

"I-I wanted you to overlook this joint advertising program I've been working on with Barret. It's a series of black and white commercials and a huge grant to the Junon Board of Edu--"

Cloud looked at Reeve the way a parent with a third notice on the mortgage payment would look at a child who was begging for a new set of the most expensive rollerskates the department store offered.

"--b-b-but I...don't think you want to hear about that right now, d-ddo you? Sorry, sir...um...I have to go now...bye!"

Reeve was a chicken. He couldn't think of anyone he employed that wasn't a chicken, though. Except for maybe Vincent. And Cid, but Cid was too wild, and had to be put away. Barret was no chicken, either...but he hadn't spoken to Barret since the last board meeting, which was last month. His thoughts wandered back to Tifa.

She had always known she was second best, so why the Hell had she gone and married him? Still...Cloud was lonely. He had felt Aeris' presence around him constantly since Sephiroth died, but that wasn't enough. He needed physical companionship.

It really didn't matter much to Cloud who it was, but marriage had been the assurance of someone he could hold on to every day. Tifa being a hopeless romantic had worked out just fine for Cloud.

"Poor sap..."

Yuffie's voice crackled through the intercom. "Excuse me, sir?"

Cloud looked up, startled. "Huh?" He hadn't realized that he sat down on the intercom button.

"Sir, you want something?"

Cloud thought a while and licked his dry lips.

"Yuffie...can I see you in my office?"

"Y-y-essir.."

Cloud thought a while while Yuffie came in.

Aeris...I can feel you all around me...all the time. You're still there...right?

There was a cold wind.
In Cloud's office.
With all the windows closed.
I knew it.

As he had seen in Lucrecia's Cave, death could not stop true love.

And the love between Lucrecia and the head of the Turks, in Cloud's opinion, was as true as the sky was blue...well, out of Junon, that was. In Junon, the sky was always grey. He'd noticed that first year after Sephiroth's demise that Vincent used to take an hour out of his day every day to visit Lucrecia in her cute little cave. As Yuffie minced in, Cloud wondered if Vincent still did that...

A pink glow filled Cloud's office, with the sound of girlish laughter. Shortly afterward, there came a tortured scream.

Cloud stumbled out of his office drunk, hardly noticing the sob coming from under his desk.

***

"An' so...das howwit is now!" Vincent announced, his martini glass raised up in his claw, making mettallic pinking sounds everywhere. He had two bleach-blonde bar regulars at his side, both drooling over him and trying to stroke his hair. Elena looked on with a look of disgust that could kill a small mammal.

Rude blinked innocently and took another sip of his drink. Reno was gaffawing right along with his boss, futily trying to get one of Vincent's girls to look at him.

"Ohh, Vincent, that's soooo romantic!" droned the one on the left.

"Hehehe...what happened to that mean old man?" sighed the one on the right.

Vincent swiped his fingers through his hair devonnaireishly. "I hunted him down by myself until I was run ragged, then shot him dead with a silver bullet between the eyes. I aimed the gun with my claw an schtill hiddim head on!" Vincent hiccuped.

Reno laughed with the ladies even though he knew it was entirely not true. The stormcloud over Elena's head was almost visible. She threw a quarter at Rude's head. "This is for my tab," Elena growled, stomping out of Ed's. "Stupid sunnovabitch..." she muttered. "I hate it when they get him drunk!"

A neon green sign further in the alleyway flickered.

TATTOO

Creative name for a tattoo parlor. Pfft.

Elena turned and was about to walk back towards the AVALANCHE building, but something stopped her. Ever since she was a little girl, tattoos had fascinated her. She never missed a chance to go window shopping for them, so she turned around and walked towards the green sign.

The showcase was framed by black lights, and Elena could see some of the phosphorescent designs. They ranged from Celtic to Occult, modern, even a few religious symbols and product logos, dragons and ladies. Dragons, mostly.

Elena thought for a while.
She'd always wanted a tattoo...
But she turned away.
Naw...maybe later.

***

Stripes had scared Tifa away for the day, and so it wasn't until the next day that she met him at his window, staring out at the white sign on the other building as always. He was muttering something to himself. "...So...how'..zzit going...er...damn. I cannot get this right."

Tifa cocked her head and asked, "What can't you get?"

Stripes nearly jumped a foot. Tifa had never suprised him like that. "Huh?! GACK!! You heard?! How much d-digi hear?"

Not only was Stripes too good at slang...he STANK. Tifa stayed back a little. "Not much... I didn't hear much...Just....you were practicing conversation?"

"Um...yeah. That is..tha'szit."

Tifa just couldn't get used to Stripes trying to speak in slang. She wished he'd stop. It bugged her, but if he wanted to do it, she may as well be of a little help to him. "Maybe you need to practice with another person. It'll come more naturally then."

Stripes brightened up like a sparkler. "Really? Wait...you aren't going to try and pry into why I'm doing--never mind. Thank you."

Tifa cocked an interested eyebrow, but kept herself from prying. "OKay, let's see... 'How're you, Stripes?'"

Stripes looked through his notes. He kept notes. On slang. "Ahhh...O-Kay. How's it "hangin'" with you? Tifa?"

Dear Lord, he was terrible. "Not bad. 'How's buisness?'"

"'Oh, it's all right. Only had a few customers today, but I can only take so many at a time, you--ya know?' God, I just cannot do this!"

"Why d'you say that? You're doing just fine, Stripes. Say, why DO you want to learn slang, anyway? I like the way you sound normally a lot better."

"To fit in with the boys at--"

"Ed's?" Tifa gave Stripes a little disgusted look.

Stripes sat up straight. "Yeah."

"Why? They're all a bunch of slobbering drunks!"

"All of them seem to be my customers. I want to blend in so they're more comfortable with me. If I sound too high above them, they won't like me, and I can't have ice running through my veins if I want to run a successful, honest business. D'you understand?"

"I gotcha...but your slang, when you try to learn it like that, it's just so damn practiced that it sounds phony. I think you should just spend a little more time with them. You'll develop your own speech patterns by yourself eventually."

Stripes blinked. That was one he'd never heard before. Tifa knew Stripes didn't want her to pry, but couldn't resist. "Where were you before you came here, by the way?"

Stripes fidgeted. "Uhhmmerrr...uh...I used to...be a...teacher in Midgar until three years ago. How long dyou spoze it would take to assimilate me?"

"Oh, I guess that explains it... I can't imagine quitting a teaching job to be a tattoo artist though. And look, you just did "dyou spoze" on your own. It shouldn't take too long if ya keep hanging around Reno, heh."

"Well, Midgar got pretty trashed. I wasn't staying there. Plus, a lot of my students were always telling me to go become a tattoo artist since that's really what I wanted to do instead of teach. Yeah. Reno, he's a nice boy. I almost trust him."

Reno must not have been younger than him by five years.

"Hmm...hey, what did you teach?"

"I taught biology..." Stripes said absently.

"Biology? That's funny. I had you pegged as more of a... An english teacher."

Stripes chuckled. "Yeah, well...I dabbled in a little of both."

Tifa smiled. She was finally getting to know a little bit about him. She looked at the stripes on his arm. "What about art? Did you ever teach that?"

"No," Stripes shook his head vehemently. "Art teachers are the most wretched creatures on the planet. They try to teach people the styles of artists forcefully, fail in doing so and wonder what went wrong. They're constantly bombarded with people who don't appreciate what they do. My self esteem isn't the best, so I don't think I could take that. Being like that...takes a certain strength that I simply do not have."

Tifa gasped apologetically. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."

"Offend me? No, I'm not offended. I'm actually surprised and kind of flattered that you'd think I'm that strong a person..."

"Well, you do seem strong. And determined to learn slang." Tifa winked at him jokingly.

Stripes smiled and brushed his shaggy bangs out of his sunglasses. "So...do you think YOU'RE strong enough to face Cloud?"

"...Eventually. I need a little more time."

Stripes sighed exhaustedly. "All right. Just don't get too cozy. You'll have to face him someday soon, you know."

"I know... But I haven't been this... un-unhappy for a while."

"Oh?" Stripes gave Tifa a concerned look.

"Forget it..."

***

Barret nearly shot down Cloud's office door. "Open up, ya goddamn lily-white sunnovabitch!"

Reeve was trying unsuccessfully to hold Barret back. "Barret, please! I-I don't want him to get mad at us!"

Barret flared his nostrils at Reeve. "Gawd, you white people's so YELLOW! Dis is da fifth advuhtizing campaign he's shot down because you too chickenhearted to stand up to da foo! If he don' open up dis goddamn do', I'm gunna shoot HIM down, suckah!"

Reeve looked like a child tugging at his mother's skirt. "PLEASE, Barret! Let it go!"

"One mo' word out yo goddamn mouth an I'm gunna bus' you a new--"

Cloud opened his office door and glared at Barret. He had bags under his eyes and stank of liquor. "Yes, Mister Wallace, can I help you with something?"

Barret wasn't fazed. "You reject one mo' of mah advuhtahzin plans and I'm gonna give you a goddamn anal pore in yo goddamn spiky head!"

"FINE! You can HAVE your stupid little advertizing plan! I'm made of money! Here, go start it!" Cloud exploded, throwing a bag of gil at Barret's forehead and stomping away.

"Dayum...he got somethin' wrong in his head..."

Reeve peeked out from under the chair he had dove for cover. "He's been like this ever since Tifa left..."

"Dammit, those lousy sunnovabitch Turks is all goddamn morons! They couldn't find a duck if dey was sittin' onnit!"

A sob was heard from within Cloud's office.

Reeve perked his ears. "Barret, did you hear that...?"

"Hear what, I din' hear nuffin, foo..."

Reeve hushed him and pointed into the office.

"Eeeee..." Yuffie sobbed.

"Yo, who's in there?" Barret asked in his most sensitive tone of voice.

Reeve looked out at Yuffie's desk. They both noticed she hadn't been there. "...Yuffie?"

Barret shoved him into Cloud's office. "Why you always gotta be so damn dramatic about things?! Yuffie, dat you, sweet thayng?"

"AAAAAAAAaaaahho-ho-hooooohh...!"

Reeve and Barret rushed up to Cloud's desk, looking for Yuffie, but she didn't seem to be anywhere.

Something tugged at Reeve's pantleg and he jumped.

Yuffie, battered and bruised, with torn clothes, had been kicked under Cloud's desk.


Chapter 5
Index